Photo credit Gabriela Herman

Libyan Semolina Cake with Spiced Date Filling

Syrup-soaked saefra is a cake fit for a king.

Many families in Libya used to squeeze oranges and bottle the juice to be used all year round. According to Claudia Roden, in her magnificent “Book of Jewish Food,” using oranges in cakes was a particularly Jewish practice. These cakes, usually prepared with the tart Seville oranges that had to be boiled for hours to tame their bitterness, have been enjoyed for centuries. With sweeter oranges and commercial juice available today, we don’t have to boil them.

King Solomon’s Cake, popular in Libya and attributed to King Solomon himself, is also called saefra (yellow) cake — the yellow comes from saffron. Many versions are studded with raisins, but I prefer this spiced date filling instead. This delicious dairy-free cake was a must for the Sabbath and special occasions. I assume it predates the more elaborate baklava we know today. It was also, according to the late cookbook author Copeland Marks, an aphrodisiac — and, as such, it was served on the eve of the Sabbath to husbands needing help in their conjugal duties.

The following recipe is excerpted from “King Solomon’s Table” with permission from Knopf.

Learn more about King Solomon’s eating habits and the history of this cake here.

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semolina saffron cake recipe syrup almonds jewish dessert
Photo credit Gabriela Herman

Saefra

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This vibrant, zesty cake soaked in syrup is believed to have been King Solomon’s favorite.

  • Total Time: 7 hours
  • Yield: Serves 8-10

Ingredients

For the date filling:

  • 2 Tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 lb pitted dates, chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • ¼ tsp ground cardamom
  • ⅛ tsp ground cloves

For the cake:

  • 2 cups (440 g) cream of wheat
  • 1 cup (225 g) coarse semolina
  • ½ cup (100 g) sugar
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 cup (235 ml) vegetable oil
  • 1 cup (235 ml) orange juice
  • grated zest from 1 orange
  • ½ cup blanched whole almonds, for garnish
  • 1 Tbsp sesame seeds, for garnish

For the syrup:

  • 1 ½ cups (300 g) sugar, or ¾ cup (150 g) sugar + ¾ cup (175 ml) honey
  • juice of 1 lemon
  • ¼ tsp saffron threads

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a 9- or 10-inch springform pan.
  2. To make the filling: Pulse the oil, dates, cinnamon, cardamom and cloves in a food processor with a steel blade until a thick paste has formed.
  3. To make the cake: In a medium bowl, mix together the cream of wheat, semolina, sugar, baking powder, vegetable oil, orange juice and orange zest to create a thick batter.
  4. Spread half the batter into the prepared pan, then top with the date filling, spreading the mixture with a spatula to the edges of the pan. Pour the remaining batter over the top, smooth the surface and score the top of the cake into 2-inch diamond shapes.
  5. Gently push one whole almond vertically into the center of each diamond, then scatter the sesame seeds over all. Bake for 30-45 minutes, or until golden on the top.
  6. Fifteen minutes before the cake is done, make the syrup. In a small saucepan, bring the sugar, honey (if using), ½ cup (120 ml) of water, and lemon juice to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat, add the saffron and let steep for 5 minutes.
  7. Pour the warm syrup over the cake when it is done. Let stand for at least 6 hours or more, so the cake completely absorbs the syrup.
  • Author: Joan Nathan
  • Prep Time: 15 minutes + 6 hours soak time
  • Cook Time: 45 minutes
  • Category: Dessert
  • Method: Baking
  • Cuisine: Sephardi

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